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Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier - Fine Chocolates Made by Hand

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Coming Home to Costa Rica

December 30, 2009

I’m packing light. You don’t need to pack a lot of clothes to visit Costa Rica. It’s hot, even in January. Besides, I need the space in my suitcase to bring back the wondrously robust dark chocolate that makes my Rica Organica and Cointreau truffles special.

I leave on New Year’s Day, which seems appropriate. I can’t think of a better way to start 2010. This is my fifth trip to Costa Rica. I first visited the country through a chocolate tour in 2008. I fell in love with the country and the people on that very first trip. Although jungles and howler monkeys are about as far from Wisconsin as you can imagine, the people have made it a home for me. It’s only been five months since my last trip, but it feels like way too long.

My kitchen manager, Karina, is coming along with me for the first time. I’m excited to introduce her to my friends and show her all the places that words and pictures just can’t capture.

Hugo Hermelink (left) was my host on a visit with the Asociación de Mujeres Amazilia del Caribe in Costa Rica. I’ll be working with them again on this trip to help the women further develop their chocolate-making business.

One of our first stops will be my friend Hugo Hermelink’s organic cacao plantation, Finmac, located in Villafranca. This is the north central region of the country. It’s hot, swampy and rainy there. But it’s also a great place to grow superior cacao. Hugo is such an inspiring guy. Although cacao almost vanished from Costa Rica after a blight destroyed most of the trees in the ‘80s, Hugo kept the faith. He worked to create new varietals of cacao trees that could withstand the disease, called monilia, and now he processes his own chocolate and helps smaller farmers establish their own cacao crops. We share a Dutch heritage and a love of chocolate – those are two powerful bonds!

While we’re in the area, I’ll be doing a workshop with the Asociación de Mujeres Amazilia del Caribe. The wives of cacao farmers, the Amazilia women originally joined together to supplement their household incomes. After trying different ideas, they started working with organic chocolate in 2004. Today, they primarily make bars that are sold in San Jose and at resorts and gift shops catering to tourists. I have done chocolate tastings with the women before, but I’ll be spending more time with them on this trip. They have hired marketing assistance and hope to start making bon bons, so I’ll be showing them some of my techniques. They’re a delightful, enthusiastic group and I’m thrilled to see them again.

Then we head north to the Upala region, my home away from home. On my last visit, the members of the Upala Organic Cacao Growers Cooperative made me an honorary member. On this visit, my good friend Geovanny Herrera Valverde is planning something special for us. I’m not sure what, but I know it will be great. We’ll visit several different cacao farms in the region, which borders Lake Nicaragua. We’ll see how their cacao tree nursery program is progressing and we’ll work with the women of the cooperative, who are interested in making chocolate like the Amazilia group.

Finally, we’ll end our trip with a few days on a beach chilling out. After the holiday rush, Karina and I need a breather! Then it’s back to Madison, filled with fresh inspiration.

If you’re interested, there’s more about my experiences in Costa Rica on the website (https://gailambrosius.com/meet-gail/farmers/). You can try fine Costa Rican chocolate in my Rica Organica and Cointreau truffles. We also hold monthly chocolate tastings (https://gailambrosius.com/events/) where you can experience the distinct flavors of chocolates from several South and Central American countries, including Costa Rica.

When I get home, I’ll share more about our adventures. Happy New Year!